a priest's musings on the journey

Friday, January 26, 2007

Sermonette: On the Vocation of Suffering

Luke 9:23-25 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

I am not exactly sure where the idea came from, but at least in the American Church, we have this idea that being a disciple of Jesus Christ will somehow cause our lives to be trouble-free. It is as if we expect the promise of the here-not-yet Kingdom of God to be manifest right now in our lives. Even though we may scoff at the so-called Prosperity Gospel, many of us still expect to live lives free of pain and suffering. It is as if we believe it is our birthright as sons and daughters of God to always live in a state of what we perceive as blessing. A casual look at what prayer life most of us have reveals this entitlement theology and a startling self-centered spirituality.

However, Jesus’ call to discipleship cuts at the root of this self-centeredness. Jesus said that if we wanted to be his follower, then we would have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. The metaphor may have lost some of its impact in its translation into our culture; but, the original audience knew exactly what Jesus was saying. They were used to seeing roads lined with crosses, filled with men who had been executed by the Roman State. They understood that to take up ones cross was to walk the road to death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther's, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.”

For most of us, our death is a final denial to self, a death to this self-centeredness, and a rejection of the things of the world. Our death to self, and in turn to sin- which in its essence is any action that puts the self above others, becomes a conduit through which the Holy Spirit leads us to an experience of the resurrection in Christ. Moreover, it is this daily dying and rising to new life in Christ that keeps us immersed in the life of the Christ with whom and in whom we were united in our baptisms. Christ’s resurrection came through the way of suffering; Easter is inextricably bound to Good Friday. The disciple who has been raised to new life in Jesus Christ and experiences the life of God through communion with Christ, must also identify with the oppression and sorrow of the suffering Christ.

Bonhoeffer wrote:

Those who are not prepared to take up the cross, those who are not prepared to give their life to suffering and rejection by others, lose community with Christ, and are not disciples. Discipleship is commitment to the suffering Christ.
Whether we really have found God’s peace will be shown by how we deal with the sufferings that will come upon us. There are many Christians who do, indeed, kneel before the cross of Jesus Christ, and yet reject and struggle against every tribulation in their own lives. They believe they love the cross of Christ, and yet they hate that cross in their own lives. And so in truth they hate the cross of Jesus Christ as well, and in truth despise that cross and try by any means possible to escape it.

Those who acknowledge that they view suffering and tribulation in their own lives only as something hostile and evil can see from this very fact that they have not at all found peace with God. They have basically merely sought peace with the world, believing possibly that by means of the cross of Jesus Christ they might best come to terms with themselves and with all their questions, and thus find inner peace of the soul. They have used the cross, but not loved it. They have sought peace for their own sake. But when tribulation comes, that peace quickly flees them. It was not peace with God, for they hated the tribulation God sends.
Thus those who merely hate tribulation, renunciation, distress, defamation, imprisonment in their own lives, no matter how grandiosely they may otherwise speak about the cross, these people in reality hate the cross of Jesus and have not found peace with God. But those who love the cross of Jesus Christ, those who have genuinely found peace in it, now begin to love even the tribulations in their lives, and ultimately will be able to say with scripture, “We also boast in our sufferings.”(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship and the Cross,” from Meditations on the Cross, translated by Douglas W. Stott. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1998).

Many of us eschew the oppression and pain that can come to our lives because of our commitment to Jesus Christ. O, we acknowledge that we are bearing our cross; but, at the same time we beseech God to deliver us. We fail to embrace our cross and its ability to connect us to the saving Tree of Life. We fail to understand our call to live a vocation of suffering; not merely suffering, but redemptive suffering that has been sanctified and united to the Suffering Christ.

This of course does not mean that we can not ask God to deliver us from evil and to give us the grace to endure what hardships afflict us, after all, our Lord Himself taught us to pray this way. Yet, somehow we must realize the way of life is through the way of the Cross. Jesus warned us that if we lived the life of discipleship we would be rejected and persecuted by the world. Our values would be so offensive and abrasive to those in the world, that they would only know how to react in defensive, self-preserving ways that pushed us away and even annihilated us. Jesus said that when we experienced oppression and rejection, we were blessed, because we were feeling the birth pangs of the coming Reign of God.

God calls us to deny ourselves and to live the vocation of suffering, not because God is a cruel, despotic deity who wants to punish us. On the contrary, this vocation is grounded in self-giving love and sacrifice. The vocation of suffering leads us away from our self-centeredness and towards the other. God is a God who suffers for and with us; God is a God who gives Himself totally and completely to us; God is a God who loves so much that He sacrifices His own life in order to enable us to have life. Our integration into the community of Christ and the life of God commits us to the same self-giving love that suffers so that others may find liberation and redemption. To be like Christ is to be a suffering servant; to be a child of God is to be on the side of the oppressed. Indeed, to be an icon of oppression and a window to liberation.

Such is the vocation of many who have experienced rejection from both the Church and the world; oppressed people like the homeless, the mentally ill, GLBT persons, and anyone who belongs to God, and yet, has no place to belong. They yearn for justice; they long for acceptance and inclusion into the Body of Christ to which they too have been united in baptism. Yet, they are well aware that our purpose, calling, and mission is not to receive justice for ourselves; but to liberate our oppressed brothers and sisters and to live justly for them. Jesus never taught us that we would receive justice in this life. Jesus taught us to seek justice for others. Those who suffer the most, have the most to give; those who are oppressed and rejected, know the way which leads to the liberation and acceptance of others. They understand the mystery of bearing the anguish and injustices of others and have learned that we bear this pain for others, because God bears we pain for us. The irony is the more they are oppressed by the world, the more they experience pain and sorrow, the nearer God comes to them; the longer the Institutional Church continues to reject and exclude these disciples of Christ, the more their share in the self-giving, suffering love of Christ conforms them to the life and image of Christ. The more fervently the religious zealots attempt to amputate these members from the Body of Christ, the closer to the heart of Christ they become.

This vocation of suffering and self-giving love is the foundation upon which the church continues to grow. It is the Way that God Himself experienced in order to overcome the powers of sin and evil. It is the Way that God continues to experience through us and with us in God’s work to transform the world. It is not that God causes suffering; but, God transforms suffering so that what was meant for evil, can produce good. The blood of the martyrs nourished the early church; the sufferings of these saints and their daily martyrdom to self sustains the Church today. These sufferings are agonizing and unjust; yet, God will create a new reality of justice and peace from this oppression. It may be Friday; but Sunday is coming. We may be walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but Resurrection is about to happen.


I HAVE no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

"A Better Resurrection" is reprinted from Goblin Market and other Poems. Christina Rossetti. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1862
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 2:17 PM


Nice blog.

I think one of the key words in that passage is "daily", that new challenges can come along every day, and it means we have to continually rededicate ourselves.

However, I think the "taking up the cross" is the extreme metaphor that few of us are ever asked to do. When we follow Jesus, many times that involves denying ourselves ... but it does not necessarily always involve suffering. ... although sometimes it does. I think there can be various degrees.
Anonymous Bob, at 3:26 PM  
Thanks for this blog, Father Rob. I really needed it.
Blogger Screeching in the Angelic Choir, at 11:07 AM  

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